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Tuning Your Body for Sport Riding

Drop in to your nearest Sunday-morning canyon meet-up or track day pit, and you’ll surely spot tons of riders who’ve spent thousands of dollars upgrading their sportbikes with aftermarket exhausts, brake and suspension components, and lightweight billet and carbon fiber bits. Now, I’m a big fan of personalizing my own rides, whether two-wheeled or four, but it sometimes seems like these riders have forgotten that the most important component in making a bike go fast is the guy sitting on it. Not only that, but a big part of the appeal of sportbikes is that they offer incredible performance for a relatively low price – a new literbike is less expensive than all but the cheapest of new cars. Nevertheless, not every sportbike owner has the extra cash to get their forks revalved, buy a $1000 rear shock, and pay around $2k for a full exhaust system + Power Commander + dyno tuning.

So what can we do to improve our performance in sporty street or track-day riding for a minimum amount of cash outlay? We’re a big fan of track schools, and believe that every serious sportbike rider should attend at least one – saving your money to attend a track school will make a far bigger difference in your skill, safety, and lap times than spending an equivelent amount on bike upgrades. But what if the recent holiday season has wiped out your cash reserves, and your bank account balance (or lack thereof) brings you to the brink of tears? Well, you can do what top pro riders do while not riding their motorcycle . . . develop your own body.

Yes, exercise has benefits for riders beyond improving their health and building a toned physique to impress the ladies at the hotel pool in Vegas. If you aren’t currently working out, you need to start a basic whole-body program before layering your riding-specific exercises on top – check the web for info on workout plans for beginners, like this one. Make sure the plan you choose includes plenty of exercises that focus on strengthening the ‘core’ muscles, as these provide a stable platform to allow the rest of your body to do its work (and a strong, well-balanced core also decreases the likelihood of injuries while training or while applying your new-found strength to, say, help your buddy move his couch closer to the TV before the MotoGP race comes on).

Expert riders do the vast majority of their on-bike work with their leg muscles, which makes sense since your legs are much stronger than your arms. Whether you’re using your legs to move around on the bike (hanging off in a left, then transitioning to the right) or gripping the tank to hold yourself in place under hard acceleration and braking, your legs need to be strong and flexible. Your basic full-body workout should have exercises that work the major leg muscles, and it’s important to complement those exercises with some serious time spent stretching the muscles of your legs and the associated muscles in your lower torso – the more flexible your legs are, the less likely they are to cramp up when you’re hanging off mid-corner in a 120mph sweeper (which can be quite detrimental to your overall health!).

A good way to build strength in your legs as well as improving muscle endurance and overall cardiovascular fitness is through riding a bicycle. Top pros like Troy Bayliss, Neil Hodgson, James Toseland, Ben Spies, the Hayden brothers and Ricky Carmichael all use road-bicycle riding as a core component of their training regimen (see Dirck’s article Top American Pros Prefer Road Cycling as Training Method). A gym membership (which you already signed up for to do the rest of your workout, right?) and a stationary bike can be used in place of real road bicycling (many racers seem to be using the X-Bike to train when they can’t get on a road bicycle), but of course you’re going to have more fun if you get outside and ride some real roads – and having more fun means you’re more likely to stick with it long enough to make real progress. Don’t think road bicycling is out of your price range, either – although many of the pro racers who train on bicycles are riding serious machines costing as much as $10,000, an entry-level bike can be had for as little as a few hundred bucks.

While we’ve already covered why your legs are the most important area to focus on, improvements in upper body strength can benefit serious sport riders as well. No matter how tight you’re gripping with your legs, the fact that your body pivots at the waist means you’re going to have to use some upper body strength to keep yourself stable under heavy braking or hard acceleration. Bench press and bench fly exercises as well as pushups will help you under braking, while curls and rows strengthen your biceps and back to help you hold on easily even if you’re riding a 160whp literbike. Just remember that free weight exercises are almost always more beneficial than those done using a workout machine – the workout machine usually has a fixed movement cycle that only works the targeted muscle, but stabilizing the freeweights and maintaining good form while lifting them builds all the muscles in the area being worked.

So what can you gain from a consistent workout schedule with some special emphasis put on areas that are crucial to sport riding? As I mentioned earlier, the primary benefits of any exercise are improved overall health, weight loss, and just feeling better about yourself in general. But as a rider, if you have the strength, endurance and flexibility in your legs to move around easily on the bike without getting fatigued or cramped up, and the upper body strength to easily maintain your position under hard acceleration or braking – all tied together with a strong core – you’ll find that your body fades into the background and frees your mind to concentrate totally on riding, helping you ride faster and safer both at the track and on the street. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, if your idea of exercise is lifting your bike off the stand to go on your Sunday ride, you owe it to yourself to find out just how good it really is.

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